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Wal-Mart soars as mall crashes

For the second consecutive year, the Wal-Mart Supercenter here is the discount giant's No. 1 store.

It's not just sales, estimated at about $165-million, that outstripped performance at the chain's other supercenters. The Pinellas Park store is also No. 1 in customer service and community involvement.

The news was announced during a Wal-Mart conference in Kansas City, Kan., where Pinellas Park store manager Pat Riley was joined by movie stars Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.

Back home at 8001 U.S. 19 N, customers and sales clerks with balloons and signs watched the proceedings on a two-way satellite feed. Mayor Bill Mischler, in his Wal-Mart blue vest, led a cheer. City Council members and municipal employees, hastily summoned to the store for the event, joined in.

A mile south from that celebration, the curtain is coming down on years of trying to save ParkSide mall.

Dillard's is gone. So are Waldenbooks and the Chick-fil-A. The last anchor tenant, the JCPenney outlet store, will close on or before May 1.

Since the mid 1990s, ownership changes, renovations, name changes, an ice skating rink and a 16-screen cineplex have failed to resuscitate the mall. Now, new owners are preparing to raze the entire edifice and start over with an open shopping center and a new name: Park Place.

Location cannot account for the difference between Wal-Mart's success and ParkSide's failures, but Pinellas Park folks who have shopped at both places say there are glaring disparities.

"It's the people," longtime Wal-Mart fan Marshall Cook said. "It's our people there. Like Bob, that restocks the shelves up by the cash register . . . Jane, the cashier . . . It can be nice because people talk to you."

It's also service, Bette Gregory said. "In the first place, Wal-Mart greeters make you feel very special as soon as you go into the store. I have to ride an electric cart and they smile and bring me one. If none are available, they tell me to sit on the bench and the first one will be brought to me.

And it's selection.

"My family is on the Atkins diet, and Wal-Mart has the lowest prices and biggest selection of Atkins products," Gregory said. "The craft section in the back has everything for my certain crafts. Knitting, crocheting, quilting, beads, plastic canvas, etc."

And convenience.

"I don't have to go to several stores," Gregory said. "It's all in one place."

ParkSide pales by comparison.

To begin with, Gregory said, she could not get her electric cart to the mall. She'd have to park, walk inside and try to find a wheelchair.

"By then, I'd be too much in pain to shop," Gregory said.

With fewer stores in recent years, ParkSide has not provided the variety shoppers seek.

"Lately, I don't go there often because there's nothing there," June Shaffer said.

Gail Larson said the mall's problems began long ago when it got rid of the restaurants. Larson said she would go to eat and stay to shop. Then the stores themselves were unappealing and not helpful when it came to solving complaints, she said.

Kathy Martin said she's angry because mall owners fired cleaning crew members, some of whom were elderly, to change to a cleaning service. It makes Martin doubt she'll ever go to the mall.

"It doesn't seem right that you would do that to somebody," she said.

Wal-Mart has worked to build good relations with Pinellas Park.

Assistant store manager Rveva Barrett has recruited more than 100 new members to the Pinellas Park/Mid-County Chamber of Commerce. She goes on monthly visitation trips with Mischler, the mayor, and city officials to Pinellas Park businesses. Last week, she was named one of three city ambassadors for her contributions to the community.

The company also contributes money to local causes and schools.

The wooing of Pinellas Park began long before the supercenter opened, back when there was a small Wal-Mart about a mile north of the current location.

Mischler visited the store frequently and often kidded that when he retired, he wanted a blue vest so he could be the greeter.

When the supercenter opened in 2001, the store presented him with a personalized blue vest that says he's the No. 1 mayor in the world.

"When they first came into Pinellas Park, I was very upset," Mischler said. "But over the years, they have changed their approach."

That was evident, he said, when the chain decided to open the supercenter. Store officials met with neighbors to make sure everyone was happy. They also put in golf cart paths to give residents from Golden Gate Mobile Home Park and nearby Mainlands easy access without having to drive on U.S. 19.

But Mischler said he does not favor Wal-Mart over other Pinellas Park businesses. He wants them all to succeed and be happy. But Wal-Mart does have a special place because it generates so much business and publicity.

There were 8,000 people in Kansas City on Monday who heard the name Pinellas Park, he said. That counts for a lot.

"I'm proud," Mischler said. "How many places can say we have the No. 1 Wal-Mart in the country? How many people can say that?"

_ Staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this report.

Wal-Mart by the numbers

As of Aug. 31, the Wal-Mart chain had 4,777 stores spread out from the United States to China. Here's a breakdown.

United States: 1,494 stores, 1,386 Supercenters, 532 Sam's Clubs, 56 Neighborhood Markets

Argentina: 11

Brazil: 24

Canada: 214

China: 29

Germany: 92

South Korea: 15

Mexico: 611

Puerto Rico: 52

United Kingdom: 261

Wal-Mart in Florida

Stores: 182

Employees: 68,301

Community involvement: $10.5-million

Money spent with in-state suppliers: $2.2-billion

State and local taxes: $57-million

Sales taxes: $494-million

Sources: Wal-Mart,